Short Fiction by Diana Gittins

 

Bright as Bazooka bubble gum, the dress hanging on the rack in the store in Brattleboro, Vermont, leapt into my heart with a single bound. It was January 1954, and I was eight. The bodice was smooth, sleeveless and shiny, and from the waist flounced layers of taffeta and petticoats topped with gauzy netting as airy and delicious as cotton candy. Little velvet bows, soft as kittens’ fur, punctuated the join of bodice and skirts. I had not worn a dress for over a year. Just after my seventh birthday I had chopped off most of my hair and sworn I would never wear a dress or skirt again. But there was the dress, glorious, like a shaft of lightning piercing through the clouds of a receding storm.

 

When all the leaves had fallen, snow arrived in flurries, storms and blizzards. In the evening, Mom and Dad and my older sister, Cynthia, traipsed over icy roads, snowdrifts and salty paths to the KDU – the Kitchen Dining Unit — perched on top of the hill at Putney School, where Dad taught Physics and Math. The students at Putney, both girls and boys, wore jeans, sweaters and ski pants during the day, but had to dress up for dinner. Boys had to wear a jacket and tie. Girls had to wear skirts or dresses.

Until the previous week I had been able to get away with wearing jeans to supper — I think my mother assumed that as a Faculty child I would be relatively invisible and not subject to the rules imposed on older students. I suspected Mom admired me for this, although she herself loved to flounce into the KDU in her green and yellow quilted Italian skirt, her black polo neck, black stockings and big gold gypsy earrings. Cynthia, who had only recently stopped wanting to be a cowboy, usually wore some bland shirtwaist or other. Dad kept out of all discussions on clothes and domestic matters. But last week something had been said to Mom by somebody important, probably the Director, Mrs. Hinton, or Mrs H, as everyone called her. Mom was told I should not be wearing jeans to dinner. We’ll get you something simple, something plain, Mom told me in the car as we drove to Brattleboro. I sat in grumpy silence all the way to the department store.

 

During the McCarthy era, Putneyites were often referred to as The Reds in the Hills or, more usually, Pinkos. Progressive, coeducational and inspired by liberal values, Putney was seen by McCarthyites as highly suspect. Mrs Hinton’s two children, Bill and Joan, were both in Communist China during much of that time; Fernando Gerassi, who taught Art, had been a General on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War; his wife, Stepha, taught Russian and came from the Ukraine; Alger Hiss’s son was a student at Putney.

The word Pinko had been coined by Time magazine in 1925 and was often used during the Cold War to label individuals as politically suspect, or just in one way or another different. In his 1950 Senate campaign against the Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon referred to her as The Pink Lady. She was a pioneer in politics who fought for women’s rights, civil liberties and world disarmament. Nixon said of her, she’s pink right down to her underwear.

 

‘Oh!’ I picked up the dress on its hanger and grinned at Mom. ‘Look!’

‘That?’ She spat the words from scarlet lips. ‘How could you? It’s revolting!’

‘Oh no, it’s beautiful!’ I turned away from the fire in her eyes and stroked one of the velvet bows.

‘Little girls always love pink,’ said the store lady, a droopy dumpling with gold glasses tied to a chain that perched on a vast expanse of bosom.

Mom tutted and shook her head the way horses do when shaking off a fly. She never answered the store lady. ‘You’re not that kind of girl,’ she said, as she plucked out a plain sack of navy blue with a peter pan collar. ‘Try this one instead.’

‘Yuk! No!’

‘What about this one?’ She yanked out a green pinafore dress. ‘You like green.’

‘I said no! THIS is the one I like!’ I clutched the pink dress to my heart.

‘Maybe she could just try it on?’ The store lady whispered loudly to Mom. ‘I’m not at all sure it will fit.’

But it did fit. My legs stood firm and pale as cream under the frilly layers of pinkness that smiled at me from the mirror. I twirled. I grinned. I stared into the mirror at someone I had not met before. It was me.

‘It doesn’t suit you at all. You look dreadful.’ Mom frowned and twitched, shuffled her feet and pulled out yet another boring dress. I made a face and shook my head.

‘This is the only dress I want. This is the only dress I’ll wear.’

‘Determined little thing, isn’t she?’

‘The bane of my life.’

 

Mom was an aspiring artist. She had majored in History of Art at Bryn Mawr and was helping Fernando teach Art at Putney. She loved Turner and Constable, Miro and Rothko, and sometimes made deprecating remarks about Botticelli and Rubens and all those goddamn pink putti. She loved colour, with the exception of purple and pink. She wore scarlet lipstick, scarlet fingernails and scarlet toenails, dressed in her own rendition of chic beatnik crossed with Parisian bohemian. She never wore pastels. Even her nighties were red, orange or black.

On a recent visit to Manhattan, she had brought back a book of Rothko’s paintings, which I liked to flip through. I was fascinated by the endless boxes of colours so strong they made my heart beat faster, and even though they weren’t really pictures, the more I looked at them the more I felt they had stories to tell. One I particularly liked was called White Center. On top was a block of vivid, slightly sickly, yellow and at the bottom was a bigger box of lavendery pink. In between was a layer of white. At first, it looked like an ice cream sandwich out of a strange dream. But when I noticed the narrow black strip between with white and the yellow I began to see the yellow was a bit like Mom, all smiley sunshine to others but with a thick dark bit underneath that nobody really noticed. The yellow-black was squashing the white pillow, pressing hard so the pink was finding it harder and harder to breathe. But when I looked closer, the pink seemed to be moving, and I wondered if one day I might open the book to find the pink had pushed the white and black and yellow off the painting altogether.

 

The first time I wore my pink dress to the KDU, I tucked it carefully inside my snow pants and muffled myself up in coat, scarf, hat and mittens. I arrived looking pretty much like all the other Faculty children: rosy-cheeked, well cocooned and, in my case, with steamed-up glasses. Inside the waiting hall at the KDU I was surrounded by teenagers and Faculty in a bustle and squeeze of peasant blouses, dirndl skirts, serious tweeds, hesitant shirtwaists and intelligent corduroys. I slunk into the area where coats were hung and, unseen by others, slipped out of my snow gear and — oo-la-la! Like an overshaken bottle of soda pop, I burst into the centre of the crowd in a gorgeous display of pink fizz and frill, beaming and standing tip-toe tall.

A peculiar silence spread across the room. Conversations dribbled away, jaws dropped, eyes rolled. A vast array of mouths opened, like hungry fledglings in an overpopulated nest. They were all gaping at me, though whether in shock or amazement I wasn’t quite sure. Mom glared, looking as if she had been forced to inhale a bag full of stinky cheese. I didn’t care. I suspected some of them were laughing at me, but I saw others with flecks of kindness in their eyes. When the door opened to let everyone into the dining hall, I flounced in, head held high.

 

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, claimed that colour was the soul of nature. To engage with colour, he maintained, meant participating in the emotional life of the natural world. Colour is used as an integral part of Waldorf education; in the early years, pink is used for walls and curtains because it is seen as loving, innocent and feminine. Pink’s equation with softness and femininity is common, but not universal.

 

Towards the end of winter, I went upstairs to get changed for dinner, but could not find my pink dress. It wasn’t hanging on its usual hanger in the cupboard. It wasn’t in any of my drawers. It wasn’t on the bed or under the bed. It wasn’t in Cynthia’s half of the cupboard or on or under her bed.

‘Mom, where’s my dress?’

‘I had to take it to the dry cleaners!’ she shouted from the bathroom.

‘What?’

‘It was filthy. It nearly walked there on its own.’

‘It was NOT filthy!’

‘It was disgusting.’

‘It was not!’ I stomped my feet and fought off tears.

‘You’ll just have to wear the plaid one I got you till it comes back.’ She slid into the room in her slinky black dress as she clipped on her dangling bell earrings.

‘I won’t.’

‘You can’t come to supper unless you do.’

‘Then I’ll stay at home.’

‘Oh no you won’t!’

Instead, I stayed in the car in my jeans while everyone else went to supper. I was cold and hungry, but insisted I would do that every night until my dress came back.

But it never did come back. A week later Mom told me that my dress had disintegrated in the dry cleaning and they had had to throw it out. I cried and cried. In the end I gave in and wore the plaid dress she had bought for me. All through supper I smouldered, eating seconds and thirds in the hope of getting too fat to have to wear it any longer, building up layers of resentment that would, with time, go underground, even as the fat became ever more obvious. Pig, Cynthia called me.

 

Many people love pigs. My feelings towards them are ambivalent. I recognise their intelligence and find their faces vaguely appealing. But the truth is I also feel revulsion when I see one. I don’t think it’s because they’re often dirty and roll in muck, I think it has more to do with having once read in an encyclopedia that captive mother pigs often become stressed and attack their own piglets. They sometimes not only kill them but eat them. But now I wonder if it isn’t more to do with their pinkness, their fat shape and their omnivorous greed, traits far too close to my own sense of self, traits that for so much of my life I have hated.

 

It was the 19th of December, 1980, my second wedding day. I had been living with Sid, twenty years my senior, and my seven-year-old daughter, Emily, in an old cottage in Buckfastleigh, Devon. I was a lecturer at Plymouth University. I had recently set up a course in Gender Studies and several colleagues, as well as students, had made cutting remarks when they heard I was getting married. What the hell, I thought, it was a bit of fun, a symbol of commitment.

My mother had come to stay with us for the wedding. She was in remission, or at least not currently incarcerated in a mental hospital. Our cottage had only one bathroom and Mom was in it. She had been there for nearly an hour. The taxi to the registry office was due in five minutes and I still hadn’t been able to do my hair or put on a bit of make-up. I had a stye. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter because Sid didn’t seem to mind that I was overweight and went around in jeans. We loved each other.

‘Can you hurry up please, Mom?’

‘Don’t be so impatient. You want me to look nice for your wedding don’t you?’

‘But Granny,’ Emily said, pounding on the bathroom door. ‘It’s her wedding, not yours!’

There was a long silence.

‘The taxi’s here!’ Sid shouted.

‘Mom, for God’s sake!’

‘You’re so mean!’ she snarled as she threw open the door and flounced out with scarlet lips, green eye shadow and well-sprayed, well-curled hair.

I had just enough time to run a comb through my hair and smooth my blue linen dress. I had bought a wild red and pink striped maxi dress, but Mom had persuaded me that it wasn’t at all flattering to my figure.

 

Pink is a pigment of the imagination. It is a combination of violet and red, two colours at the opposite ends of the spectrum. No rainbow displays pink. Red and violet cannot come together and make one, for there are no pink wavelengths of light. What we think we see as pink is a result of some waves of light being absorbed while others are quenched by the pigments. It is not a transmissive colour, but a reflective one. It is a made-up colour, a construct. There is nothing natural or given about it, despite what our eyes are made to believe.

 

Mom sent letters and postcards to me that first year after I married Sid. She told me about all the wonderful things she was doing and how happy she was because Andrew, a 28-year-old on whom she had recently fixated, had asked her to marry him. Young men are so much nicer than old farts, she wrote. No date for their wedding was mentioned. She now lived in the UK, he lived in the USA. I discovered later he had around that time written to her to say he was getting married to someone else.

One day a letter from Mom arrived. It was addressed to Sid.

‘Why on earth is she writing to you?’ I laughed.

‘God knows.’ He opened it and began to read. His face drooped. He turned away.

‘What is it?’

He gave me an odd look. ‘Nothing.’

‘Let me read it.’

‘No!’ He walked out of the house and didn’t come back for a couple of hours. From then on I was haunted by that letter. What had she said? What lies had she spun? He would not talk about it and told me he had burned it. I should have felt relief, but underneath my anxiety lurked an uneasy awareness of something horrible I could not remember, something dreadful about me. He became more remote. Not long afterwards he had a stroke and lost all ability to speak. I never knew what that letter contained.

 

In the early 1800s pink was considered to be more powerful and masculine than blue. Baby girls then were dressed in blue. Prior to this all babies and toddlers had been dressed in white shifts and gowns. Around the age of six, boys were ‘breeched’ and put into masculine clothes and had their hair cut short. Girls stayed in gowns with long hair for the rest of their lives. Colour is imbued with meaning, but meanings change across cultures and over time. Pink has recently become associated with gay culture and identity drawing on its association with femininity but altering it in the process.

 

My mother lay in the intensive care ward of the mental hospital in Colchester. She looked up at me as I offered a tentative kiss. It was 1984. Her hazel eyes had lost their frenzy. Her skin was pale and wrinkled, without make-up, without her scarlet lips. Her hair, no longer permed, lay on the pillow in wisps of grey and brown, with a kind of bowl cut like the ones she used to give me. She looked me up and down without smiling.

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked.

‘What’s it to you?’

The previous year, my first book had been published and I had sent her an inscribed copy. She sent me a postcard to say the title was ridiculous and she dumped it in the bin without even opening it. I had just travelled for five hours nonstop to come and see her after her heart attack. I began to wonder why I had bothered.

She looked at the wall. Wind was rattling the windows of the ward. Nurses were chattering in hushed tones. The ward was awash with heat, the smell of disinfectant, floor wax and dying.

‘Still wearing dungarees, I see.’ She rolled her head from side to side. ‘Why don’t you make an effort? Do something with your hair? Get contact lenses. You could be quite attractive, you know, even though you look just like your father.’

‘I’ve brought you some grapes.’

‘Oh. Thanks.’

A few minutes later she turned her head back to look at me. A wash of fear had spread across her face.

‘I should have shot him, shouldn’t I?’ Tears were welling in her eyes.

‘Him?’ I imagined she was talking about my father and what he did to me when I was seven. The reason I had cut off my hair. The reason why I did not want to wear dresses or skirts.

‘You know who I mean.’

‘Yes.’ This was the first and only acknowledgement she ever made about what he had done. ‘Yes. You should have.’

 

‘How are you feeling now?’ The therapist looked me in the eye.

‘It feels like I only exist from the neck upwards. I am a head, just a head, a head that has always had to struggle to drag a body along behind it, like an overflowing suitcase or a trunk, the kind of trunk I had to drag each year to boarding school.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with your body,’ he said. ‘It goes in and out in the right places.’

There isn’t? It does?

I stared at the threadbare beige carpet and my greying sneakers. The hem of my jeans was frayed. I could not meet his eyes. ‘Oh,’ I muttered. The words simply would not come. But when the session was over, I nearly flew, light as a paper bag carried by the wind, towards the largest department store in Plymouth.

The words, nothing wrong with your body, and, in and out in the right places, beat a steady rhythm in my consciousness as I dashed through traffic, oblivious to hooting horns and angry gestures. Once in the store, I took the escalator two steps at a time and swept into the ladies department, panning in on sweaters, dresses, tops and skirts as I rifled through railings and racks.

Just before I hauled my load to the dressing rooms, I spotted a pink silk scarf. It was gorgeous. I stroked its softness. But no, not pink! Not for me. Not that sort of girl. Sexist. Stereotyped. Disgusting. I let it go as if it were contaminated, swivelled into the dressing room and dumped my pile of prospective new clothes on to the chair. I stopped. I looked at myself in the mirror.

I dashed back and snatched the scarf.

 


Diana Gittins is a writer and poet who was born in the USA and moved to the UK when she was 14. She has had four works of nonfiction published and two poetry pamphlets. Madness in its Place was nominated for the MIND Book of the Year and was adapted for a Radio 4 programme. The Family in Question has been translated into several languages. She has won several poetry prizes. Her most recent publication is a story ‘My Life in Animals’, published in On the Seawall (ronslate.com).
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